Graduation

Studio: Criterion

May 25, 2018 Web Exclusive Bookmark and Share


It’s fascinating to contrast how American and European film culture differs when it comes to depicting government corruption. In U.S. films, corruption is usually seen as a way for people to circumvent the law to line their pockets. They’re not powerless people: they’re people grasping for even MORE power that the system is designed to keep them from getting. In European films (especially those made in former Soviet Bloc nations), government corruption is a survival strategy. It’s way to get what you want because the system that exists is so ineffective that flying the straight and narrow path will only lead to misery. Nobody can keep their heads above water by swimming through the official channels.

Romanian director Cristian Mungiu’s 2016 film Graduation is explicitly about the necessary evil of gaming the system. It takes place in a world where everyone is on the take because that’s the only way to get things done; a society where even the cops that are investigating you for a crime admit they’d probably do the same thing if they were in your shoes.

Graduation is bookended with sudden pops: it opens with a rock shattering a window and closes with a camera shutter. His morning bathroom routine interrupted by a shower of glass, Graduation’s protagonist Romeo runs out into the decaying city block he lives in to find the culprit. It won’t be the last time Romeo’s peace is disturbed by a flying rock, or that the middle-aged doctor will fruitlessly search for a guilty party.

Adrian Titieni gives a bone-weary, naturalistic performance as Romeo, a respected and rumpled professional at the end of his rope. Looking like an Eastern European doppelganger of Nick Frost, the heavyset and unshaven Romeo keeps his emotions in check. When he does let loose, bursting into tears in the middle of the night in a forested park, it’s only when nobody’s watching.

Graduation’s plot kicks in early on when Romeo’s daughter Eliza is sexually assaulted on the way to school. Afflicted with physical and emotional trauma, Eliza has troubled completing the crucial school tests she needs to ace to get a scholarship that will get her out of Romania. We get a small taste of the absurd bureaucratic hell the characters are trapped in when Romeo argues with a teacher who refuses to let Eliza in because there are rules in place to forbid students from wearing casts to tests: they’ve already caught other students using them to cheat.

Desperate to give his daughter another chance so she can escape from a city that Romeo and his sickly, remote wife Magda feel condemned to live the rest of their lives in, the doctor gets entangled in a web of favors and back-scratching deals to get Eliza better test results. It’s a tiny crime that blossoms into a conspiracy of cops, school officials, and politicians, each cheating the system like it’s second nature because they’ve had to do it over and over again.

While much of Mungiu’s film is a condemnation of the ineffective world Romeo and Eliza (Maria Drăguș) live in, it’s also a compelling character study. Romeo is riven with contradictions: he’s loathe to cheat the system because he prides himself on his professional integrity, and yet he’s also a philanderer who’s sleeping with his daughter’s tutor Sandra (who’s also a former patient of Romeo’s, adding to the ick factor). Played by Mălina Manovici, Sandra has a lot in common with Romeo’s wife Magda (Lia Bugnar). Both of them are dispassionate women who seem resigned to be with Romeo; their morning tryst interrupted by a phone call, Sandra immediately leaves the bedroom to rifle through a bag of groceries Romeo brought in. She seems more interested in what’s he bringing to her fridge than to her bedroom.

And considering how self-absorbed and stubborn Romeo, it’s hard to blame anyone for not connecting with him.

As Romeo gets drawn deeper and deeper into the conspiracy to change his daughter’s academic future, Mungiu gives us quick glimpses of other intriguing personalities: Romeo’s cop friend, who keeps two giant jars of marbles on his desk as a way of tracking how many days he has left until retirement; the oddly sympathetic investigators sniffing around one of Romeo’s patients; the rape suspect who has to keep repeating his lines during a police lineup because he’s saying them too fast.

Like in 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, Mungiu grounds the film’s events in the real world. There isn’t much room for poetry or visual beauty in Romeo’s city, but Mungiu manages to sneak in a few indelible images: the wolf-like turquoise mask that Sandra’s young son wears; the abandoned blue plastic playgrounds scattered across Romeo’s block; the way Mungiu lets one character’s face drop out of focus in the background of a shot while someone in the foreground tells them to get the hell out.

Criterion’s Graduation release preserves Tudor Vladimir Panduru’s graceful cinematography, doing justice to the film’s chilly and suffocating atmosphere. There isn’t much in the way of extras, aside from some deleted scenes, an interview with Mungiu, and a press conference from the 2016 Cannes Film Festival that features the director and his cast.

While it’s a relatively barebones release by Criterion standards, Graduation is a worthy addition to any cinephile’s shelf. It’s a fine example of the dynamite work being produced by the Romanian New Wave. And it also shows the power of a well-chosen, on-the-nose name. While Graduation is about Eliza’s graduation, it’s also dealing with what graduating means: leaving the home, severing your close connection with your family, and venturing out into the unknown. The power of Graduation is that Eliza isn’t the only character going through that process of leaving everything behind.

(www.criterion.com/films/29414-graduation)




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